You two’re just dumber than a bag of hammers!
I have favorite directors like some film fans have favorite actors. My favorite, as most readers of this site know, is Tim Burton. Others include Steven Soderbergh, Cameron Crowe, Woody Allen, John Sayles, Quentin Tarantino, and David Fincher. And, as luck would have it in this particular situation, the Coen Brothers. In fact, I’d rank them in the number two spot behind Burton. Their movies are unique, both from the rest of what Hollywood produces and from the other films in their oeuvre. What they excel at is ridiculous, absurd comedy that comes in many guises — live action cartoon (Raising Arizona), ’40s screwball throwback (The Hudsucker Proxy, their most underrated film), inky black humor (Fargo), or drug-induced incongruity (The Big Lebowski). Add to that road trip mayhem with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a film of joys too limitless to catalog.
The Great Depression has hit the South hard, but that’s hardly caused hardship for our trio of heroes, other than leading them to crime, which in turn led them to prison. Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) escape from a chain gang to embark on a quest to return to Everett’s family farm to recover a buried treasure before the valley is flooded to make a reservoir. They only have four days to make the journey, and standing in their way are perilous obstacles — treacherous relatives, lustful maidens, a one-eyed Bible salesman, and oh so much more.
Did you know that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is based on that crusty old tome, Homer’s Odyssey? That’s the way the story goes, and it further goes that Joel and Ethan Coen have never read it. That’s the Coens for you. They took the quest for a treasure, the blind soothsayer, sirens, and a Cyclops, and transposed that into a madcap tale in the ’30s South. One of their other inspirations for O Brother, Where Art Thou? was Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, wherein a Hollywood director wants to make a prestigious film with that lengthy moniker. (By the way, The Simpsons also used it as an episode title.) Those are the facts that you’ll read in any other review. I’d like to be a little more personal.
Like I’ve said, I’m a big fan of the Coens. I haven’t seen all their movies, unfortunately, because I discovered them somewhat late. The same thing happened with Tim Burton. I had seen a few of his films, but I didn’t really put it together that the same guy directed all of them. I loved Raising Arizona, and thought Fargo was amazing. Later, I saw The Big Lebowski in the theater, and I was hooked. I picked up The Hudsucker Proxy on DVD sight unseen, and braved the local theater that used to be a mausoleum to see Blood Simple. Unfortunately, that leaves Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, which I am dying to see but just don’t want to resort to VHS as my introduction to them. Ironically, my first viewing of O Brother, Where Art Thou? was on VHS. I’m a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and late last year (before it had opened theatrically in my smallish town) a screener copy on tape found its way into my hands thanks to my membership. It took all of five minutes for it to find its way from mailbox to VCR. I fell in love with it, and rushed to the theater to see it as soon as it opened. After raving about it, I passed along the tape to my parents. They returned it a few days later with that sort of look I’ve received on numerous occasions…the “we don’t understand how you’re our son and turned out with such weird tastes” look. I should stop recommending things, my vaunted status as a “critic” notwithstanding.
There’s an infectious joy to O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Only the Coens could take a tale of three escaped convicts on the lam and make it so durned interesting and fun. That fun starts right on the pages of the screenplay. The Coens write their own films, and their dialogue has a peculiar, distinctive lilt to it. It’s movie dialogue, to be sure — no one, especially the sort of low-life characters they tend to write, speaks with such mellifluous, bookish vocabulary. That juxtaposition, though, keeps you on your toes. Here, it’s tempered somewhat by the movie’s setting in the Depression-era South, and that many characters are particularly lacking in education or cultural refinement.
The Coens are also particularly adept at creating memorable characters, some of whom you love, some you hate, but they’re always completely unforgettable. Of our adventuring trio, Pete is given the least development, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he disappears for a spell. Delmar is sweet, a little naïve, but altogether likeable. Tim Blake Nelson is the surprise among the cast. Many of the faces that you see are familiar, either from rampant media exposure (like George Clooney) or from other Coen Brothers movies (like John Turturro), but Nelson was hardly a household name or face. He had small roles in a few high profile movies (notably Donnie Brasco and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line), and recently has found some notoriety as the director of the oft-delayed, much-praised Shakespeare adaptation O. While appearing in a Coen Brothers movie is hardly a ticket to stardom, here’s hoping that it opens a few doors for him. Earlier in the paragraph I mentioned George Clooney almost dismissively, but it was not meant as a slight. While some might write him off as just another pretty boy TV actor, I’m impressed by the charm and charisma he brings to his roles. I’ll be kind and not mention his pre-ER résumé (*cough*Return of the Killer Tomatoes*cough*), but after appearing in that hit show, he’s picked some interesting roles that may not have a wide range, but at least show differing sides of the Clooney persona. One Fine Day traded on his nice-guy looks and charm, and while it is a chick flick, it’s one that I haven’t hated watching when my wife has had it on. A triptych of films showed his bad-ass side to varying degrees: From Dusk Till Dawn (if you put his Seth Gecko in a cage match with Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken, my money is on Gecko), The Peacemaker (still a bad hombre, but tempered a bit too much by Nicole Kidman’s star power and weak action direction from Mimi Leder), and Three Kings (terrific performance, and a masterful movie from David O. Russell). His crowning achievement has been Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, where all the traits of Clooney’s other roles mellowed into one character, and the result was something that he’ll perhaps never be able to top. And then, after that long digression, there’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Throw all you know about George Clooney out the window. Ulysses Everett McGill is a unique creation, a fast-talking blowhard without the common sense to back up the stream of words that spill from his mouth. He plays it as broadly as the Mississippi, and quite obviously is having the time of his life with this character. Of the trio, as characters I like Delmar the best because hey, if I was chained to another person I’d much rather it be him than Everett, but Everett gives me as a viewer the most cause to laugh. While Jack Foley in Out of Sight may be Clooney’s best character to date, there is no possible way he could film a better scene than the musical number toward the end of the film, wherein he does the Chicken Dance while wearing a fake beard. That’s what I call sublimity.
Before I get lost talking about the joys of this movie, I should move along to the disc specs. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a Buena Vista release. They used to the most derided of the major studios for their lackluster DVD releases, but they have shown noticeable improvement. The film is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in an anamorphically enhanced transfer. Wow…all I can say is it is very nearly a perfect transfer. There’s a few dust blips and such, to be sure, but otherwise the image is flawless. The Coens and their longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins, did considerable digital post-processing on the image of O Brother, Where Art Thou? to develop its unique, washed-out and faded look. As such, the colors are not what you could exactly dub realistic, but the DVD accurately reflects the look they intended. Audio is available in both DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1. I tested only the Dolby Digital track. Sound quality is excellent, though it sticks mostly to the front channels and uses the rear channels only sporadically.
Extras consist of a theatrical trailer, a music video for “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” a “Painting With Pixels” featurette, another production featurette, and multi-angle storyboard to scene comparisons. The trailer…grr, I hate marketing people! It manages to spoil just about every sight gag in the movie in the space of a minute and a half, and it has Trailer Voice Guy to spell out the story for us. Why do these people do this? The video is your typical soundtrack video — the song set to clips from the movie. The featurettes are short, but very informative. The “Painting With Pixels” short gives you a look at the digital processing that the negative underwent. It runs about nine minutes, and features cinematographer Roger Deakins and techs at the Cinesite effects house. They give a brief history of photographic processing, and show before and after examples (not necessarily from the movie) of the digital processing that gave O Brother, Where Art Thou? its unique look. The production featurette is also about nine minutes long, and features interviews with Joel and Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Holly Hunter, Tim Blake Nelson, and Roger Deakins talking about the making of the film. I suppose one could bemoan the lack of a commentary with the Coens, but honestly, could you really see listening to these guys for 103 minutes? It would be less coherent than a Tim Burton commentary (listen to the track on Edward Scissorhands and you’ll see what I mean). The storyboard to scene comparisons give you several lengthy scenes and allows you to see the storyboards, the finished scene, or both (I opted for both; much easier to compare that way).
I don’t have any complaints about the movie, and Buena Vista did a reasonable job on the DVD. I would have appreciated a commentary from Clooney, Turturro, and Nelson, but I suppose that’s wishful thinking. Also, after making him the eponymous Barton Fink, the Coens have not given Turturro many meaty roles — he was absent from The Hudsucker Proxy and Fargo, and had a small (but memorable) role in The Big Lebowski. I’d like to see him as the lead in one of their movies again.
Oh, there’s one other thing. I am tired of studios altering the DVD cover art from the theatrical artwork. I really liked the stark theatrical poster, a part of which you’ll see at the bottom of the cover artwork. Apparently, people will see a movie in the theater on its own merits, but when it comes to the DVD, they’ll only buy it if the star’s face is plastered across the box. As a side note, if MGM ever releases a special edition of Fargo, I hope they use the cross-stitched theatrical poster.
The Coens may be an acquired taste, but I’d say O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of their most accessible movies since Raising Arizona (14 years ago!). I would heartily recommend it as at least a rental if you haven’t seen it, because its $29.99 retail price makes it a little spendy for a blind purchase.
There’s so many actors I left out of my discussion of the movie, and I hardly have time to discuss all of them. I would like to make mention of one that no doubt no other reviewer is going to mention: Ed Gale, who played “The Little Man.” This short person (is that the preferred nomenclature?) has appeared in more movies than you might think. He was one of several actors inside the suit of titular fowl Howard the Duck (George Lucas’ other forgotten movie), and doubled as Chucky, the murdering doll in several Child’s Play movies. Little person, big roles.